The History of Greek Music


The music world owes much to the ancient Greeks. In fact the word "music" is derived from the nine muses of ancient Greece, who were goddesses ruling over the arts and sciences. Modern day musicians refer to their muse, which is someone who has an influence on another person's creative work. Different musical terms such as melody, tune, rhythm and others have their roots in the Greek language. Pythagoras, who was the father of music theory, was Greek. However, with the fall of ancient Greece and the collapse of the Roman and Byzantine empires, Greek music hibernated for several centuries until it was reborn in the 19th century.

Greek Music and Mythology

  • The ancient Greeks had musical instruments such as drums, cymbals and pipes. The earliest known Greek music was intertwined with Greek poetry. Dancing with the lyre (phorminx) was used to accompany poets composing melodies from short repeated phrases. Ancient Greeks used music to honor their gods. One particular Greek legend relates how the god Hermes made the first lyre from a turtle. Hermes then gave the lyre to Apollo, the god of reason, as Greek music is typified by orderly patterns. Besides Hermes and Apollo, other Greek gods connected with music were Pan, Orpheus, Dionysus and the Graces (daughters of Zeus).

Music in Ancient Greek Education

  • Music played an important role in education and was considered a main subject, as essential as reading, writing and arithmetic. Greek boys started learning music as early as 6 years old. The Greek musical modes were taught in Greek music theory. Eventually, the Greek musical modes were the foundation for classical, as well as Western religious music. Students used singing to help memorize odes such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Intrigued with the harmony of music, one exceptional student, known as Pythagoras, designed a mathematical theory behind musical tones in the 500s B.C. that's still used in modern times.

Byzantine Empire and After Constantinople's Fall

  • During the Byzantine Empire (330 A.D. to 1453 A.D.), Greek music was influenced by Eastern liturgical chanting. This tradition of chanting continued until the Byzantine capital of Constantinople fell in 1453. Music was monophonic, meaning it consisted of only a single musical line without harmony. Besides being monophonic, the vocal music lacked instrumental accompaniment. This type of music developed in the Christian Greek cities of Antioch, Alexandria and Ephesus. The 400 years of slavery following the collapse of the Byzantine Empire was a harsh period in which any influence on Greek music was stifled.

History of Greek Folk Songs

  • Greek folk songs, which date back to ancient Greek poetry and music, refer to the songs given to the people. The two different periods of Greek folk songs include the akritic and the klephtic movements. Dating from the 9th century A.D., the akritic styles expressed the struggles of the Greek warriors defending the borders of the Byzantine Empire. The klephtic movement covered the end of the Byzantine period and the beginning of the Greek Revolution, leading to Greece's independence in 1821. Musical styles from the klephtic movement include love songs, weddings songs and songs of both freedom and exile.

19th-Century Music Revival

  • Greek music was reborn in the 1800s. Composers such as Spyridon Xyndas, Spyriod Samaras, (composer of the Olympic anthem), and Nikolaos Mantzaros influenced Greek music in the 19th century. Dimitris Lialios and Dionysios Rodotheatos were symphonists known for revitalizing Greek music. Composer Kleon Triantafylou, known as "Attic," created one of the first repertory Greek troupes in his famous "Mantra tou Attic." Many other gifted artists and composers came out of this period with their music expressing common experiences in everyday Greek life.

20th-Century Greek Music

  • As the 20th century dawned, female vocalists typically led bands, including a violin and a sandouri. Some of the more noted musicians included Marika Papagika, Ross Eskenazi, Agapios Tomboulis and Rita Abatzi. The Rebetiko movement began during this time with Byzantine, Symaic and Ottoman influences. Rembetika music, which is Greek underground music, began around the early 1900s. This music was influenced by 2 million Greek refuges coming from Asia Minor.

Mid-20th Century and Contemporary Greek Music

  • Folk music styles known as amanethes and rebetika, which combined Greek and Byzantine traditions, were revived during the 1970s. During the 1950s and '60s, several Greek composers gained worldwide fame such as Yanis Xenakis. Greek youth turned to pop and rock music in the 1960s as groups such as the Idols and the Charms rose in popularity. Pop music was influenced by both British and American rock music, along with Greek folk songs. Modern Greek music includes folk music with these traditions combining both Eastern and Western influences.

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